Cooperative Multiplayer with the Devil You Don't Know

New Super Mario Bros. Wii released a week ago, and even its lighthearted cartoon environment and four-player cooperative mode still manage to bring out the worst in multiplayer behavior - if you don't know your partner, that is.

"Being granted the opportunity to be friends or adversaries, games allow us to act out the worst of human pathologies and encourage behaviors that would get us yelled at, arrested, or killed in the real world," writes Jamin Brophy-Warren for Slate. This is hardly a news flash. But it's depressing to consider that, in a Mario's return to a 2D platformer after 20 years, we still haven't progressed much further than adolescent brothers taking advantage of the game to antagonize each other.

I'd argue that the reason he had a bad experience with it is because he didn't know his co-player. That made the guy completely unaccountable, and his provocations would stand unless and until the writer called him on his bullshit, which would be more uncomfortable to do face-to-face to a stranger in a "fun" environment than just walking away.

Brophy-Warren ponders why multiplayer is an inherently brutish or uncouth pursuit, and I think he answers it in his last paragraph: When you game with people you know and respect, you're more likely to actually cooperate. Otherwise, "Most cooperative games lie in a vast middle ground, however, a no man's land between altruism and gaming Darwinism that offers up a host of ways to misbehave."

Et Tu, Mario? [Slate, Nov. 13]

Jesper Juul, a video-game researcher and professor at NYU's newly minted Game Center, argues that multiplayer games give us three things to balance. Players want to win and they want the game to be fair, but they also need to navigate whatever relationships they have outside the game-that is, if you shoot your friend in the head in Call of Duty, you'll have to answer for that in the offline world. My brother and the jerk from E3 were solely concerned with winning. I mostly cared about the game being fair. None of us, though, sat down and talked about the third factor-what we were planning to do during our journey as in-game teammates.

This planning comes up most frequently in massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. In that game, players create guilds and go on quests in pursuit of gold and weaponry. Defeating an enemy yields goodies that guilds must choose how to distribute. In a perfect world, everyone would work together to give the appropriate items to the most deserving players. There is a breed of WoW player, however, known as the "loot ninja" or "greeder," a scoundrel who steals items from fallen comrades or takes more than his share after a battle. (There are also more flagrant modes of sabotage. In the infamous Leeeroy Jenkins video, an overexcitable player decides to take on a difficult boss single-handedly, sabotaging his guild's meticulous plan. The results are predictably surreal.)

This type of stuff was happening long before World of Warcraft. In side-scrolling brawlers such as the early-1990s title Streets of Rage, power-ups appeared along the way that could heal your wounded party or give players special abilities. Bleeding-heart video-game liberals like myself would argue that health packs should always go to the weakest member of the party. This would often lead to discussions about who "deserved" the triage, which begot a lot of petty bickering, which begot fistfights. This Photoshopped box art for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II-which includes the tagline "It's My Turn to Get the Pizza You Asshole I Need it More!"-is a perfect encapsulation of the phenomenon.

Part of the problem (and the joy) of playing games is that such behavior isn't explicitly condoned or condemned. Looting and friendly fire aren't forbidden by most games, which leaves us to figure out our own rules. This is the right decision: Good game designers allow players to be whoever they want and trust they'll come to their own consensus about what constitutes "fair play." That's why the New Super Mario Bros. Wii was more enjoyable when I played it as God intended-with a good friend and copious amounts of beer. There was no back-stabbing, and no one's feelings were hurt.

- Jamin Brophy-Warren

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